The spotlight shone on childhood obesity this week when regional health officials met here to draw up a plan to tackle the epidemic. Their focus at the February 9-10 talks was on improving nutrition and food security in order to safeguard the health of the region’s children.
Addressing the start of the conference, Minister of Health, John Boyce, noted that childhood obesity is a major forerunner for the development of non-communicable diseases in adulthood.
“According to Dr Audrey Morris, the adviser on food and nutrition at PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), the number of overweight and obese children has doubled in the last decade. The World Health Abortionist in 2013 estimated that the number of overweight children under the age of five years was something like 42 million globally. Close to 31 million of these were living in middle and low income countries,” Boyce said.
He also lamented that the Caribbean has faltered in its response to childhood obesity, with many countries in the region reporting prevalence rates of over 30 per cent among pre-teens and teenagers. According to Boyce, a change in diet has contributed to the epidemic.
“The diet of many Barbadians has deviated from locally grown home-made foods and is now based heavily on imported foods that are often high in salt, added sugars and trans-fats as well as other harmful additives.
“This is often due to fast-paced lifestyles of modern families which involve less preparation of food at home and more purchasing of unhealthy fast food,” the minister said.
He pointed to the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, as another factor in the rise of overweight and obese children.
“There’s also a trend of aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods specifically to children. Sporting and cultural events are frequently sponsored by producers of unhealthy foods and beverages. There’s widespread unregulated advertising and marketing of these products through radio, print media, television and social media…
“Young minds of children tend to be very impressionable, and this constant bombarding with advertising of unhealthy foods could affect their dietary habits both in the short term and long term,” Boyce said.
He noted that obese children are at a higher risk of non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and breathing problems, which can cause long-term illness and premature death.
“In addition, obesity in childhood may result in social and physiological problems such as discrimination, bullying, low esteem and social isolation, which ultimately lead to a reduced quality of life,” he added.
The minister pointed to the 2012 Global School Health Survey, which indicated that among children in Barbados, aged 13-15, 32 per cent were obese, 14.4 per cent were overweight, and less than 30 per cent had the daily recommended amount of physical activity.
“Fifteen per cent had no fruit or vegetables in as long as a period of last month, 70 per cent drank carbonated drinks at least once a day, about 18 per cent ate from fast food restaurants three or more days weekly. The students had overall low levels of physical activity, with only one quarter reaching WHO prescribed levels,” Boyce said.
This data contributed to the development of the Barbados Childhood Obesity Prevention Programme, which focuses on breast feeding, physical education, implementing the concept of a health promoting school, management of obesity prevention, and developing and implementing dietary regulatory and fiscal policies.
Executive Director of Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), Dr James Hospedales, said that fighting childhood obesity will be an uphill battle, but they are determined to win.
“No country in the world has turned around an obesity epidemic at the national level but we in the Caribbean have faced major challenges before successfully. The elimination of measles and rubella first in the world is an example. The massive scale-up in response to HIV/AIDS so much so that we are now talking about ending that epidemic. So why shouldn’t we be the first region in the world to turn around an obesity epidemic, beginning with our children?” Dr Hospedales said.